One-Man Show

Why the personality cult of Arvind Kejriwal is here to stay, and will define the Aam Aadmi Party’s fortunes in Punjab

After rebuffing numerous prominent leaders who would not have been content to simply echo Arvind Kejriwal (third from left), the AAP heads into the upcoming Punjab election without a single viable candidate for the chief minister’s post. Ravi kumar / Hindustan Times/ Getty Images
01 October, 2016

It is easy to forget today that the Aam Aadmi Party was not always synonymous with Arvind Kejriwal. There was a time when he was only one of several party leaders, who all spoke their own minds and contributed to the establishment of the party. As the main face of the AAP in Delhi as it campaigned for and won power in the city he may have been the most prominent, but others such as Prashant Bhushan, Yogendra Yadav and Dharamvir Gandhi also counted.

The transformation of the party has been sudden and dramatic. Over the past two years, since the AAP assumed power in Delhi for a second time after a truncated first stint, leaders who have shown any sign of differing with Kejriwal have been purged. This means that the AAP is going into the upcoming polls in Punjab, where it hopes to achieve its first major victory outside the national capital, unable to field a single viable candidate for the chief minister’s post—since Kejriwal, already holding the chief ministership of Delhi, is not an option. A number of possible candidates, none of whom would have been happy to simply echo Kejriwal—such as Manpreet Singh Badal, Navjot Singh Sidhu and Jagmeet Singh Brar—have flirted with the party, only to find that they are not welcome.

While the speed of the AAP’s remaking has been unprecedented, there is nothing peculiar about its current condition. Almost every political party in India today is so modelled, with a single overwhelming leader at the helm. From J Jayalalithaa’s All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam in Tamil Nadu to Parkash Singh Badal’s Shiromani Akali Dal in Punjab, numerous parties have undergone changes similar to that of the AAP, though usually over several decades. But while the AAP is part of this wider trend, the party’s specific nature means that Kejriwal’s dominance comes with particular implications for it.

In 2008, the French political scientist Jean Blondel, in a lecture on Western democracies titled ‘Personalisation of Leadership, Parties and the Citizens,’ noted,

In the early and middle part of the nineteenth century, parties tended to be controlled by personalities, often local leaders; from the last decades of that century, however, national “mass” parties emerged almost everywhere. The link between these parties and electors no longer resulted from loyalty to personalities, but from what has been classically referred to as “social cleavages”, especially the regional cleavage, the religious cleavage and the class cleavage. … Yet the question arises as to whether there is not now a movement in the opposite direction … with leaders being central once more, especially at election times, although these leaders no longer are “local notables”, but national politicians. There seem indeed to be clear indications that this is the case, and not merely because the media have a built-in tendency to extol the crucial importance of leaders.

Blondel contended that “the appeal of long-standing parties has declined in recent decades,” and that new parties “are set up, more so than in the past, by ‘popular’ leaders.” Even long-established parties, he argued, “have seen their structure and policies profoundly modified under the influence, indeed the pressure, of ‘highly personalised’ leaders.”

In India, the Western experience of democracy in the nineteenth century has no equivalent. But look past that, and substitute “caste cleavage” for “class cleavage,” and Blondel’s words are as apt in the Indian case as the Western one.

We are at a time when our traditional parties are being reshaped. The Congress is the Indian party that most resists parallels with the Western experience because it carries the legacy of an anti-colonial movement, but it seems to have outlived its relevance, and in its decline even it represents the collapse of the traditional order Blondel describes. Today, it stands on nothing more than the cult of the Gandhi dynasty. Almost all our other parties bear the impress of regional, religious or caste cleavages, with some bearing the impresses of several of these. We have some parties whose appeal relies mostly on disguised religiosity—for instance, the Bharatiya Janata Party and the Akali Dal—but even these are constrained by voters’ regional and caste-based preferences. The Rashtriya Janata Dal, the Bahujan Samaj Party and the Samajwadi Party rely primarily on appeals to caste. And then there are a host of parties dependent upon regional sentiments, and that may or may not also have religious or caste-based appeal: the Shiv Sena, the AIADMK, the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, the Telugu Desam Party, the Trinamool Congress, the Biju Janata Dal, the Indian National Lok Dal, the Nationalist Congress Party, the Jammu and Kashmir Peoples Democratic Party and others. What is clear in all of them, though, is the trend towards the personalisation of leadership.

Many of these parties had such personalisation built into them at their very inceptions, with individual figures exercising overwhelming popularity and influence: CN Annadurai with the DMK, Bal Thackeray with the Shiv Sena, Mamata Banerjee with the Trinamool Congress, Lalu Prasad Yadav with the RJD, Kanshi Ram with the BSP. But in each case, these leaders’ appeal depended, or still depends, on their personifying regional or caste aspirations. The personalisation of religious appeal, however, is not so easily achieved, as that appeal is supposed to transcend the individual. This is why the personalisation of leadership in both the BJP and the Akali Dal has taken far longer. The Akali Dal was founded in 1920, but it was not until the late 1990s that it came under the sway of a single man. The BJP, which has existed in one form or another since 1950, has seen a cult of personality build up within it only under Narendra Modi—though it must be noted that the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh serves as a strong check to his power, ensuring that Modi cannot assume complete control of the party.

In contrast to all these other parties, the AAP, founded in 2012, is a new phenomenon—because of both its age and the nature of its appeal. In the Western context that Blondel presents, the rise of new parties outside the traditional framework, or of new leaders within it, owes to the emergence of voters who do not give pre-eminence to social cleavages, but instead emphasise what he terms “preoccupations.” In the Indian context, these preoccupations seem to revolve around the delivery of services by the government. If corruption is an electoral issue in India, it is because it is seen as coming between voters and what they can expect from the government. Often enough, if the delivery of services improves under an administration, voters are willing to ignore corruption in it. Today, the leaders of India’s personality-driven parties—whether Jayalalithaa or Mayawati—bolster their traditional appeal with the promise of better government services. Kejriwal stands apart, however, because his appeal rests solely on this promise.

Against this background, the AAP’s rise in Delhi makes sense. Caste as an electoral factor is diluted in metropolises, and Delhi is the Indian metropolis most devoid of regional considerations. This leaves traditional parties without their usual advantages. Kejriwal’s promise of improving access to electricity and water—and, in a limited sense, his fulfilment of that promise—has registered strongly with voters. What those who took him on within the party failed to realise is that for voters, in their list of preoccupations, such things as intra-party democracy and transparency in funding—issues on which numerous former AAP leaders have found Kejriwal wanting—count only as means to an end. As long as Kejriwal is seen as delivering improved services (and he is largely seen as doing that) these issues do not count for much in terms of his credibility or popularity.

The BJP-led central government and the lieutenant governor of Delhi have only strengthened Kejriwal’s hand electorally by limiting his power over the city’s administration. Voters whose support depends on the delivery of services tend to be far more demanding and fickle than those whose choices have to do with caste, regional or religious affiliations. By giving Kejriwal the very real excuse of a lack of power, the BJP and the lieutenant governor have allowed him to escape the scrutiny he would normally be facing over the delivery of services after a couple of years in power. Thanks to them, Kejriwal’s political appeal remains undiminished.

It is the continued strength of his promises of improved services that allows Kejriwal avenues into states where regional and caste-based parties have never emerged. These are largely two-party states such as Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh. The Congress has traditionally been one pole of these states’ politics, and the weaker the party becomes, the more the field opens up for Kejriwal. But Punjab does not fit this context, and the AAP’s growing strength there requires a different explanation.

The Akali Dal, which has both religious and regional appeal in Punjab, is the focus of tremendous popular anger. The Congress, while not as badly decimated there as in the rest of the country, is still no longer seen as the natural alternative to the Akali Dal, and the BJP is hamstrung because of its failure to appeal to the state’s Sikh majority. The AAP’s lack of religious or regional affiliations and its potent promise of better services leaves the party ideally placed to benefit. Questions over leadership and internal democracy continue to affect the party there, as in Delhi, but these will not come in the way of it gaining a substantial share of the vote.

The real problems for the AAP will come not before the Punjab election but after it. Two scenarios loom up ahead: either a hung assembly (like the AAP faced in Delhi in 2013) leading to another election in the near future, or a clear majority for the party. Even in the latter scenario, the cult of personality around Kejriwal suggests that whoever the party anoints as its second chief minister (Kejriwal could swap his post in Delhi for the one in Punjab) will be a mere figurehead. This, then, would militate against the effective delivery of governance under the AAP, which is the only thing that can drive the national growth of the party. Kejriwal’s greatest challenge—and this is a challenge that has even restricted parties such as the BSP, with its wide appeal among Dalits, to just one state—lies in the fact that his party does not have room for more than one Kejriwal.